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Review: Making Stage Props by Andy Wilson

Making Stage Props - Andy Wilson
Making Stage Props - Andy Wilson

This is a story about Making Stage Props: A Practical Guide. A very good story indeed.

This book is tailor-made to anyone who works as a props artisan. In many ways, it is the book I wish I had when I first started out as a props carpenter. It does not talk about shopping, or organizing a prop list, or talking with directors. It is not a collection of tips and tricks used by props people, such as breakable glasses, blood knives, or fake food. Quite simply, it deals with how to construct props the way a professional prop shop constructs props. For the most part, that means furniture, though it also includes examples of large decorative pieces, masks, and some weaponry.

Because it deals with more tried-and-techniques (and it was written in 2003), it is one of the most up-to-date books about making stage props you can find.

Wilson divides the chapters by material and/or process: wood, steel, modelling, making moulds, casting and laminating, expanded polystyrene, upholstery, and paints and finishes. So while you can read the book from cover-to-cover, it works just as well as a reference which you can refer back to over and over again, depending on what your next project is. I would, however, recommend reading the introduction first. I had a strong sense of déjà vu the first time I read it; the way Wilson describes approaching a project is similar to what I wrote in my paper for the SETC Theatre Symposium. Guess that means I’m on to something

As you may have noticed from his spelling of “moulds” above, Wilson is British. The book is still highly useful even with a few linguistic and cultural differences—20mm plywood instead of 3/4″, for example.

The photographs, though all black-and-white, are very clear. He also includes a lot of diagrams and illustrations. Obviously, a book on prop-making can never hope to contain all the materials and processes one can ever use; he does, however, cover the most common ones which can be used to build probably 90% of the props you will ever build for the stage. Some of the information he includes can be oddly specific; for example, in the chapter on “wood”, he includes a diagram for a lathe, with all the parts listed. This is the only tool that gets such a diagram in that chapter. Why? I’m not sure.

Overall, the amount of information Wilson packs into this compact book is amazing, and it has something for prop-makers of all skills, whether new to the field, or experienced artisans. I feel strongly that it is one of the few “necessary” books for prop-makers, and even for prop people in general.

Buying the Right Tools

Amy Slater cuts a fake goat apart
Amy Slater cuts a fake goat apart

Artisans have a wide range of opinions on how to choose your tools. Some feel the cheapest tools are good enough, while others feel only the most expensive tools are worth your time. I believe it’s better to have the right tool for the job, rather than trying to improvise with the wrong tool. If that means you have to buy the cheapest one because your budget is small, so be it. Better to pound in a nail with a cheap hammer than the end of your cordless drill.

When you are building your tool collection, you will most likely feel tempted to buy all sorts of tools you see in the store or read about. If you wish to “audition” a tool to figure out whether it deserves a place in your toolbox, buy the cheapest version that will get the job down. If you use it to the point where it wears down and falls apart, you know it will be worth it to invest in a more expensive and higher quality version. You will also learn why it is a cheap version and which features and specifications to look for in your next purchase. If, however, that cheap tool sits around in your tool box for a year, unused, than you can feel good that you did not spend a lot of money on a tool which you don’t actually need.

How much should you charge for your work?

If you are a prop artisan, and you find yourself freelancing (or wishing to freelance), you may wonder how to make money, or more appropriately, how much to charge for your work. In my experience, it has been most helpful to calculate the costs of the project as accurately as possible beforehand, including a set rate you charge for your own labor. My favorite tool for this is the computer spreadsheet, whether it’s through Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, or Google Docs (or whatever Macs use).


The first, and easiest, cost to estimate is the materials you will use. I include every single bit and piece, even if I already have the materials in stock; if I use what I already have, I will still want to replenish my supply. I literally check the website of where I want to order my material, or visit the store, and use those prices to make my calculation. Make sure you include every single piece of material, no matter how minor you think it is. I was recently estimating a chandelier for a Broadway show. I knew I would need electrical cords to run from the light bulbs to the plug, but I figured it would only be a couple of bucks. Luckily, I decided to play it safe and actually estimate it for real. It turned out I would need nearly 700 feet of cord, which came out to $350. That’s not the kind of cost you want to miss in your estimate. Count up all the screws, nuts, bolts and washers. Don’t forget about taxes and delivery charges. The idea here is that you want to present your client with a realistic estimate of what the project will cost. If the project actually comes under budget, that’s great; people love hearing that they will pay less than they thought. If you don’t want to tell them you saved money, that’s great too, because you can pocket the difference. What you want to avoid is a project that costs more than what you are getting paid for. You don’t want to beg the client for another $350 because you forgot to figure in the electrical cord; that is desperate, and the client is in no way obligated to pay you it, because it was part of the original bid and it’s just your own dumb mistake in overlooking it. You can pretty much count on having to eat any costs you neglect to include in your original bid.

If the client changes something about the project, that’s a different story. Feel free to charge extra for changes.

After you add everything up, you want to make sure and add a contingency. Though you may be absolutely sure you have considered every possible material expense, there is sure to be something extra that you need, or the price of something may inexplicably rise between the time you check it out and the time you actually purchase it. For whatever reason, I like to take the total cost of the materials and add 20% to it. This is usually enough to cover the unforeseen costs.

In the commercial world, especially when it is a business rather than a single person making a prop, it is common to also charge a mark-up on materials. If the prop you are building includes a light bulb, you don’t just charge for the cost of the light bulb, you charge them for the light bulb plus a bit of profit. In other words, it is like you are a store that is making money by reselling the light bulb. This is not to be confused with the contingency cost, which should always be factored in. Adding a markup to your materials is entirely up to you; as for myself, if I am doing a job for a non-profit theatre, or a friend, or any sort of client that I already have a relationship with, I do not add a markup. I’m telling you about it just so you are aware that such a thing exists and is utilized by prop-making companies.


The second half of your equation is figuring out how much time you need to work on the project. This can be very difficult to estimate, as most of us are very bad at predicting how long a task will take. Again, your biggest ally is breaking down the tasks as much as possible to their most basic components and estimating the time those will take.  While estimating the time it takes to “build a fake dead goat” can lead to wildly inaccurate guesses, predicting how long it will take to “tighten four bolts” is far simpler.

Just like materials, you want to add a contingency to your labor. It is much more likely you will be off in your predictions with labor than materials, as the cost of materials can be researched online or by calling stores. I always err on the side of pessimism when it comes to how long a task will take.  Though I am not necessarily thinking about absolute worst-case scenarios (if all the power goes out and my tools break, and my car breaks down on the way to the store, and a volcano starts erupting while my wife goes into labor), you do want to consider that not everything goes according to plan. Think back to the last project you undertook, and remember how it took you twenty minutes just to get your workbench cleaned off before you can begin.

Turnaround Time

When you finally figure out how many labor hours it will take you to finish your project, that doesn’t mean you know how long it will take. If you calculate it will take 23 hours to work on the job, that does not mean it will be done tomorrow. First, you have to figure that you do not have every single hour of the day to dedicate to the task. Maybe you have a full-time job, or family obligations. Even if you are single and otherwise unemployed, you still need to leave time for meal breaks and sleep. Further, you need to calculate the time it will take for paint and glue to dry, or other chemicals to cure. If you need to order parts or materials, you need to factor in the time it will take to ship them.

When a project becomes particularly complex, or if you still don’t know how to calculate the time it will take to complete a prop, you may wish to learn about Gantt Charts.

An example Gantt Chart
An example Gantt Chart

I’ve never used them for single-person projects, but you may find them handy. Essentially, you break a project into every possible task. If you are building a table, you want to list buying the wood, drawing the table, developing the cut list, measuring the pieces out, cutting all the pieces, gluing the top together, gluing the apron together, attaching the apron to the top, attaching the legs to the table, sanding the table, staining the wood, and sealing the table. Obviously this is a highly-simplified example, but the point is that you need to break apart your project into various tasks and subtasks until it cannot be broken apart any more.

With a Gantt chart, you then put the tasks into order. Some tasks need to wait for other tasks to be completed before they are begun. Others can be started in the middle of other tasks. The Gantt chart sets up the overall timeline of the project, showing which tasks are dependent on others as well as which tasks can be completed independently.

Single-person projects tend to be much more linear, and simpler projects rarely need such analytical breakdown, but the important lesson to take from this is that you want to do as much planning and thought beforehand to ensure you are not promising a complete prop without adequate time to pull it off.

Charging for your labor

I did not mean to get ahead of myself talking about the time it takes to complete a project, but I want to make sure I touch on how much to charge for your labor. Generally, you charge for the time you actually work on a project, as opposed to the time you are waiting for materials to be shipped or for paint to dry. First, let me say something very important:

Your labor as a skilled artisan is very valuable and you should never ever ever ever feel guilty charging for it.

In my experience, labor is well over half the cost of any project. In many cases, it can be the largest cost on a project. This makes sense. If you could get a custom prop that perfectly fulfills all the needs of a client from Wal Mart, than they would have gone to Wal Mart. If, however, they want someone’s face carved into a chair that fits within a specific area of a stage, and is strong enough to support a tap dancer, you should charge them accordingly.

At this point, it seems simple. You’ve already figured out how much time you need to work on the project. You just need to take your hourly rate, multiply it by however many hours you need to work, and that’s the cost of the labor.

But what do you charge for your labor? That’s the rub.

Unfortunately, I can’t even give you an answer. It varies widely with where you are, how skilled you are, what the project is, and even who you are. Obviously you can charge more to a Broadway show in New York City than you can to a children’s theatre in North Carolina. It is incumbent upon yourself to research your circumstances as much as possible. Ask other artisans how much they charge. Find companies in your area that offer similar services and find out how much they pay their artisans. As a freelancer, I’ve worked at a number of theatres, operas, and display companies across the company, so that gives me a baseline idea of what I can make as an artisan.

Mike Lawler conducted a survey of technical theatre earnings in 2006. It’s very informal and fairly incomplete, but it’s the most inclusive survey we have in this area. If we are to assume full-time employment for props people (40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year), the median hourly rate is $10-17.50.  Obviously, a freelancer can never hope to work full-time, so these numbers serve more as a “you should never charge less than this, ever.” Unfortunately, the best way to determine how much to charge for your work is to see how much work you get each year for several years, figure out how much your living expenses are each year, then charge enough to keep up with your expenses. Obviously, you cannot set your rates based on hindsight; you pretty much have to wing it. Again, I’d like to reiterate that your best bet is to find out how much similar artisans in your area are charging. Your second option is to throw a price out and see if it sticks; if not, you can always lower it if you can afford it.

At this point, I want to mention that you do not need the same rate for every project. I have one rate I charge for “friends”, one for non-profit theatres whose work I find exciting or who have projects I really want to do, and one for commercial people. It’s not for purely selfish reasons; there are actual differences between working for someone you already have a relationship with versus working for someone new where there is a learning curve in the communications.

How much is too much? I’ve seen people who can charge up to $45 an hour for non-union theater work. You have to imagine that film and corporate work can command even higher prices. In my experience, whenever you feel you are charging too much, there is someone out there charging even more.

Putting it Together

At this point, you have your materials cost and your labor cost, as well as contingencies for each one. In addition, you have the turnaround time for how long it will take you to complete your project. If you added a markup to your materials, be sure to include that as well.

If you wish to operate as a business, rather than just as a person making props, you should think about adding a profit margin. In other words, take the total cost of your materials (with markup) and labor (both with contingencies), and multiply it by some profit margin. You may wish to get one and a half times what it costs to complete the project, though it is not unheard of to charge four times what it will actually cost.

Now that you’ve come this far, do not forget to include the cost of moving the prop from your shop to the theatre (or wherever it is going). It would really suck to come up with a sudden $85 charge for UPS to deliver your prop.

As an example, I was recently bidding out a project. I added up the price of all the materials. I used the best materials in order to minimize my own labor time, so it was fairly pricey. I included a contingency for all my materials. I calculated how long it would take me to complete all the tasks. I made sure I was being very pessimistic. I factored in my contingency. I added a markup to all my materials. I decided I would add a profit margin to the whole project. They asked how much more it would cost to get it completed by an earlier time. I called the various vendors to see if I could rush ship the materials and how much more that would cost. I recalculated my labor to include “overtime” and “over night” labor in order to get the project done. In short, it ended up sounding like an extremely expensive endeavor on their part.

At the end of the day, they went with a professional scene shop. Not  because they were cheaper; in fact, I was cheaper. But my price was close enough to theirs, and they were already building the rest of the scenery, so the producers decided to pay a higher price with the assumption there would be greater consistency in the final product.

In other words, even when I felt I was being my most expensive, the client still went with a shop that was even more expensive.

Keep that in mind when you think you’re skilled labor isn’t worth that much.

Why make?

This is not an article about the existential question of why we make things? Rather, it is about the more concrete question of why you would build a prop rather than trying to buy, borrow or rent it.

The most obvious reason you would make a prop is because it is simply impossible to acquire otherwise. Imaginary objects or pieces designed to specifically fit into the world of the play fall into this category. For example, during this summer’s production of Merchant of Venice, my wife made a skull which was upholstered in black velvet and bedazzled with shiny jewels. This is not the type of item you can pick up at the local Wal-Mart. Furniture in an abnormal scale or from an invented world will also need to be built for this reason.

Closely related to this category is props which need to be specific in appearance or size. If you need an oil painting portrait of your lead actor in his costume, you are pretty much forced to make it. Likewise, props with specific dimensions or furniture built in forced perspective will not be found in stores.

You may wish to adapt store-bought pieces rather than building them fresh, but beware the consequences. An object from a store will already be finished, and if you cut into it, or add parts to it, you will need to match the color and texture of the original, which may be more challenging than just mixing a paint color from scratch. Likewise, a lot of modern furniture resists easy adaptation; when you cut into what looks like wood, you discover it is actually stress-skin filled with honeycomb paper, and you have no structure inside to attach things too. If you believe your prop is going to undergo many changes during the rehearsal period, it may be wiser to build a prop designed to be adapted, rather than using a store-bought item which undergoes degradation with every change made to it.

A fourth reason for building your props is if they need to perform some kind of technical function or undergo rough treatment. Most furniture you buy was never designed to be danced on, carried around, leaned on its side or otherwise mistreated in any number of creative ways an actor or director comes up with. When I say a prop must perform a technical function, I mean things like a porcelain vase that must fall to the ground without breaking, or a table which can fold up for a quick scene change. I’m going to mention fake body parts in this category, though they can also be considered part of the first category, in that they are impossible to acquire. Legal and moral issues aside, we don’t use real body parts because they rot and smell and attract vermin. You need to build fake ones which will not degrade over time and not make a mess on stage every time they are used.

Another reason to build a prop is because the actual item is too expensive to buy or rent. Shakespeare and opera frequently rely on gold objects littered about the stage, but it would be incredibly costly to buy real gold. Real furniture, especially antiques, is built with expensive hardwoods and labor-intensive finishes which can be indistinguishable from cheaper mimicry under stage lights and viewed from a distance. Likewise, fake food is often built because, if it is not eaten, the cost of buying and preparing real food every night for every show for several weeks (or months or years) just to be thrown away is so much more expensive and wasteful than spending the time to construct a facsimile.

Finally, you may wish to give your artisans a nice project, to help their portfolio, or to give them a sense of “belonging” to the theatre. Building something beautiful or clever gives an artisan pride, and helps instill a feeling of ownership in the show which will help their morale and motivation when it comes to tech and notes and all the fiddly nonsense that nobody wants to do. If they know you will give them exciting and challenging projects throughout the season, they will be more forgiving when the “clean the paint trap” jobs inevitably come up.

On Making Things

One of the first objects I can recall making out of wood was a letter “E” that you hang on the wall. I was about 11 or 12, and it was one of my projects in junior high shop class. I traced the shape onto a piece of pine, and cut it out on the bandsaw. My shop teacher remarked on how neatly and precisely I followed the pencil line on the saw. I should have known than that carpentry would be an integral part of my vocation. I nailed a hanging bracket on the back so it could be placed on a wall, and finished it off by coating the whole thing in epoxy (with some assistance from the teacher).

I distinctly remember the feeling of pride and astonishment I felt after the “E” was finished. Here was an item you can buy in a store, but I had made it. It was like I had unlocked a small part of the great mystery of where objects come from.

That feeling followed me as I learned new techniques and worked with new materials. Every time I was introduced to a new tool in carpentry, it was as though I was delving deeper into the mysteries of furniture. It was as if I could look at a table or chair and it would wink back at me as if to say, “you know how I was made”. When I began to learn how to work with metal and weld, it was as if a whole floodgate of knowledge was opened to me as well. Objects fell apart before my eyes into their component parts and the techniques it took to put them together.

Every new skill or technique I pick up adds to my arsenal of making things. Every project is an opportunity to apply or try out a myriad of processes and materials. Making things isn’t just a way to create objects with custom properties and parameters; it’s a way for me to be in control of objects, rather than objects being in control of me.